By José Abeto Zaide
(A senior citizen’s nostalgic recollection, sometime in 2007:)
Lisbon and Fatima, Portugal — When asked on Thursday if I could present my letters of credence to the President of Portugal on Friday next, my knee-jerk reaction was to grab the date. Unless there was Divine Intervention, I must thank my Portuguese colleague in Paris, Ambassador Antonio Martins Monteiro, for leap-frogging my accreditation. My Singapore and Cambodian colleagues waited nearly two years (so did my two predecessors, Ambassador Hector Villarroel and Ambassador Rora Navarro Tolentino).
I hastily cabled DFA that I would depart for Lisbon, and designated Minister Narciso Castaneda Charge d’Affaires. My secretary, Adel Verzosa Renaud, had little time to prepare my papers for the trip. My UNESCO deputy, Consul Igor Bailey, thanked me for bringing him in tow; but he should really have thanked Assistant Secretary Armando Fernandez. I did not know which Peter Moneybags Manding robbed to pay Paul but, mirabile dictu, we got the funds in 24 hours. My wife, Meng, joined us on my own account.
Paris’ Indian summer hit 30 degrees Celsius; so we traveled light. We descended on the Aigle Azure airline, feeling out of season wearing Barong in Lisbon’s 19 degree Celsius cum drizzle, and hardly warmed by an efficient but unsmiling Foreign Office protocol. Our honorary Consul General of 30 years, Manuel Pinheiro, would provide the smiles with round-the-clock service. But he couldn’t on short notice (coming as he did from our meeting in Paris) arrange calls on media or the business sector. I prayed: No rain on my parade, please.
Chief of Protocol and the Secretary General. Ambassador Corte Real was on his second incarnation as Chief of Protocol. Few make the same mistake twice. With one deputy and a staff of 30, he covered the President, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. We ran through the next day’s presentation drill (Philippine flag, blue field up), and reminisced on some protocol hazards (how I got to be Chief of Protocol by accident). I would wear my father’s morning frock; but Igor could come in Barong. (Renting a frock would cost him one month’s representation allowance). Ambassador Real promised to deliver my gift of a Barong Tagalog for 6’3” tall President Anival Cavaco Silva.
A long hall lined with 17th century blue tiles linked the office of the Chief of Protocol in the old Royal Palace to the Secretary General’s office, which was a former convent. After the first King of the Braganza dynasty placed the crown of Portugal on Our Lady, no mortal monarch had worn the Portuguese crown again.
Foreign Office Secretary General Ambassador Quartim Santos looked forward to his assignment to China in the next fortnight. Nobody knew China as well as early Portuguese missionaries and navigators. He said that 54 percent of exports of China derived from foreign investments. I tired to interest him in Chinoys who might be good partners and interlocutors in today’s business, pointing out that there were more Chinoy investments in China that the other way around.
Presentation of Credentials. Señor Jose Soares, a second-generation diplomat who graduated from the French Elysee in Lisbon, was my designated protocol officer. He fetched me at Le Meridien hotel. Our two motorcycle escorts being overly efficient, we had to kill five minutes.
Honor guards in shining helm and breastplates were in formation at the Palace. I returned the salute of the Commander of the Guards with a slight bow. They played the Philippine anthem, followed by the Portuguese. Right hand clasped over left chest for both anthems. Again, a bow. A liveried Palace attendant led us up the steps where we would wait for the President. The envoys of Liberia, Rwanda, Macedonia, Zambia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had all waited about two years for this date. We took turns to present our Letters to President Anival Cavaco Silva. I conveyed the greetings of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and delivered her letters recalling my predecessor and designating me as the Philippine Ambassador to Portugal. Then I walked backwards to my place in the formation.
President Silva’s first words at the reception were to thank me for the Barong. (Protocol had kept its promise). He said that President Arroyo would be always welcome: he knew her devotion to Fatima. I thanked him profusely and assured that I would convey his welcome to my President. I noted that French Presidents build institutions as their legacies; but he (President Silva) had already done that during his term as prime minister with the Portuguese Museum of Culture.
Fatima. Consul General Pinheiro fetched us at 14h30, and we drove 130 kilometers to Fatima, breaking the journey once for coffee and cigarettes. The original tree of the apparition is gone, thanks to the good intentions of devotees who plucked leaf or twig. In its place is a small chapel, now canopied by a much larger kiosk. An Italian flock was celebrating mass; they would be followed by Andalusian pilgrims. The statue of Our Lady of Fatima had never left the site, except the one time when she was taken to the blessing of the statue of the Christ at Lisbon’s Tagus River. The crown was now bejeweled with the bullet that Pope John Paul II consecrated to Her in thanksgiving for escaping the attempt on his life. Across was the cathedral where Francisco and Lucia lie entombed. Its beautiful stained glass windows celebrate the attributes of Mary.
In 1991, while Ambassador Rosario Manalo and I were at the Lisbon meeting on the Commonwealth of Independent States (Russia and the newly independent countries of ex-USSR), Meng took a pilgrim’s tour to Fatima. She had a special petition to Our Lady. But she told me of her disappointment in the felt absence of fervor or piety at the site. Unlike Lourdes’ soothing fountains and gardens, Fatima was built-up with cement and mortar; and this turned off. Meng was even distracted by a woman walking on her knees with her handicapped child strapped on her back. Realizing how hers were trivial compared to the woman’s burden, she said to herself, “Never mind mine…but just grant the prayer of this poor woman.” I suggested that, without her realizing it, she was touched by grace, more than she thought…one of the few times Meng might recall deferring her own prayers in favor of another’s.
We came on Friday afternoon and lit votive candles to accompany our petitions. (Recall Ambrose’s Devil’s Dictionary definition of prayer: “To adore beseechingly”.) But we must also await our turn, remembering the suffering woman and her child, and sensible that Divine Providence knows our needs even before we even ask. At the souvenir shop, Meng picked a ceramic statue of Our Lady with the three children.
It did not rain on my parade on that Friday. Igor said She must have accepted my Letters of Credence. I am sure she did. Because of the six who presented credentials at Lisbon that day, only I, in my father’s frock, starched wing-tip collar, grey vest, and grey tie, was concurrently accredited to Fatima.
From the book Champagne on Beer-bottle Pocket by JAZ
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